Johnny Cuomo,
American Idle
(Paradiddle, 2006)

The title of the album -- American Idle -- has no bearing at all, seeing as there's nothing "idle" about Johnny Cuomo nor this album. Cuomo wrote the music for all 13 tracks, sings lead vocals and plays guitar, mandolin, dobro and harmonica. From a written/lyrical perspective, the title is obviously a homonymic pun on the popular television singing contest. Fret not, that title is where the punnage ends, because American Idle is jam-packed with introspective ponderous lyrics.

Cuomo has the rare ability to take the simplest terms and create beautifully complex metaphors. "Bricks" is an excellent example of this application. The majority of the lyrics are seemingly simplistic (and duosyllabic at most), yet the deeper meaning has a multi-faceted interpretive value. And the most brilliant part of this approach is that it's in no way condescending or confusing to the listener; it's an inexhaustive exercise with an outcome that is constantly subject to change.

Now, to counter the above praise: some of Cuomo's lyrics skew a bit towards judgmental elitism, especially those of "American Idle" and "Pop Song." The commentary of those songs seems to fall prey to the stereotypical trappings of counterculture (i.e., the notion of "if it's popular, it must not be good"). And what's so ironic about his commentary is that from a musical perspective, Cuomo has a sound that is probably appealing to a broad scale audience. Even so, it's apparent Cuomo has good intentions in the underlying message of his songs. The understood themes of individuality and self-thought are timeless -- perhaps it's just the approach/conveyance Cuomo should work on improving. There's an unfortunately fine line between offering sound advice and leaving a condescending impression.

Each song has an amicable and accessible sound, even those with a more wistful mood. This is undoubtedly because of Cuomo's instrumental skill and his approachable vocal style. The melancholic ambience of the lyrics in "Truth" (which discusses a strained relationship and related pain) fail to suppress the intrinsically blissful sound from Cuomo's guitar. And while Cuomo's voice is not superb, it still has a particular quality that most will be predisposed to enjoy. And that quality is typically increased with background vocals, as "Field 2" makes apparent.

Amicable is probably the best description for this album as well as the artist. It may be an understated way of describing the artist and his work, but it shouldn't diminish the potential enjoyment. In American Idle, Johnny Cuomo takes a solid, subtle approach that offers a consistent musical experience.

review by
C. Nathan Coyle

8 March 2008

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